Labour warns against ‘damaging' trade war with EU over protocol

UK ministers have been urged to avoid a “damaging” trade war with the EU, despite pleas to immediately suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis said talks between the UK and EU have “intensified” as they attempt to bridge “significant gaps” on Irish trading arrangements.

Brexit minister Lord Frost has set the EU a December deadline to find a solution on the treaty, which was agreed by the UK and EU as a way to maintain a free-flowing land border on the island of Ireland after Brexit.

The prospect of invoking Article 16 of the protocol, a move that would effectively unilaterally suspend the treaty, has been touted as a possible course of action if needed.

Speaking in the Commons, shadow Northern Ireland minister Alex Davies-Jones said the “last thing this country needs is a damaging trade dispute” with the EU.

She said: “Trust is hard won and easy to lose. I say to the minister, in sincere hope he listens, this is not the context in which any responsible Government would force another high-stake, divisive stand-off.

“With the cost of living crisis and growing instability, the last thing this country needs is a damaging trade dispute with our nearest trading partners.”

Mr Ellis recognised people are concerned about the cost of living but noted the protocol has “real-life consequences as to cost of living”.

He added: “Businesses also know that what we would be doing by using Article 16, should we have to do so, would be to alleviate pressures on movement of goods.

“It is a safeguard mechanism in order to improve a situation which is unsatisfactory. It is not there to cause disruption, it is there to do the opposite.”

DUP MP Ian Paisley (North Antrim) said Brussels “destroyed” Northern Ireland by insisting on the enforcement of the protocol.

He also urged the Government to invoke Article 16 to put businesses “out of their misery”.

He told MPs: “We now appear to have this Joan of Arc stand-off of the opposition, calling the protocol as if it is something precious when it is destroying businesses, it is costing businesses in Northern Ireland £850 million. That is what is catastrophic: the friction of trade within the United Kingdom.

“The Paymaster General mentioned sovereignty. I represent a constituency in the United Kingdom, so do all the members in this House. We should not be doing Brussels’ work from these benches. Brussels has destroyed this part of the United Kingdom by insisting on the enforcement of a protocol in a disgraceful manner.

“Invoke Article 16 and invoke it now, and stop dillydallying on this issue. Put business out of their misery in Northern Ireland.”

Labour former minister Ben Bradshaw asked: “What assessment has the Government made of the damage to the UK economy as a whole and our standing in the world were the Government to trigger Article 16 and it results in a trade war with the EU?”

Mr Ellis replied: “Article 16 is designed to alleviate problems, not cause them. It was a mechanism written in by the consent of both parties so that it could alleviate and act as a safeguard.

“Threats that are emanating from other quarters about pulling out of the TAC and the like would do the exact opposite.

“They would be causing disruption and that is not in the interests of the people of the province of Northern Ireland.

“It is this side that is seeking a negotiated preferential solution.”

Conservative MP Philip Hollobone (Kettering) suggested UK officials should police goods going across the Irish Sea to the Republic of Ireland in return for easing restrictions on goods moving from GB-NI.

He said: “Almost 100% of the roll-on, roll-off lorry traffic from the EU to the Republic of Ireland goes through Great Britain, a lot of it past Kettering on the A14.

“Wouldn’t a sensible negotiated agreement towards a comprehensive and durable settlement involve Her Majesty’s Government taking responsibility for policing goods going across the Irish Sea to the Republic in return for free passage of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland where those goods stay in Northern Ireland?”

Mr Ellis said he had “noted” Mr Hollobone’s comments.